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Leadership on the Mountain; Lessons for the Lab

Challenge is the core and mainspring of all human activity. If there's an ocean, we cross it; if there's a disease, we cure it; if there's a wrong, we right it; if there's a record, we break it; and, finally, if there's a mountain, we climb it.

--Climbing historian James Ramsey Ullman

Scientists are coming to terms with the fact that running a lab really is running a business. Yet, in looking for inspiration, most scientists find management and business leadership books--with their bottom line of sell, sell, sell--less than palatable. Scientific research is a product, but for most of us it isn't all about the money. It's about the science and the challenge. When it comes to management and leadership tomes, we want to read about leadership motivated by needs other than getting rich and pleasing stockholders.

Look to the mountains! Or, more practically, look to the large genre of mountain-climbing books for inspiration on leadership and for guidance on how to build and motivate a team.

Decisions in the lab do not have a simple endpoint like getting to the summit, nor do laboratory errors have immediate life-or-death consequences. Usually. But the concentrated stories of conflict and triumph, cause and effect found in mountaineering books--these stories measured over weeks and months instead of years, as they might be in the laboratory--make for accessible, easily transferable lessons.

Choosing and Cultivating Your Team

Leaders on the mountains and in the lab often feel, at first, similarly unequipped for the job. One chooses to become a principal investigator (PI) or an expedition head because of technical skills, but success depends on emotional resilience and communication skills. Mountains are not climbed alone, and research is not done in a vacuum; if the expedition leader or PI doesn't know how to choose and get the most out of team members, a project has little chance of success.

"Most of all, our expedition needed a leader, someone with a strong personality who could gather the right people around him and fuse them into a close-knit unit that could work smoothly under the most miserable circumstances."

--Art Davidson, Minus 148°: First Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley , p. 21

As in a lab, on a mountain bad people are worse than no people, and the leader needs to be careful to choose personnel well and to intervene if members of the group are having problems working together. Convinced that one of the reasons for the failure of the 1975 expedition to summit K2 had been the relative inexperience of most of the team members, leaders of the 1978 expedition decided that they would choose only highly motivated climbers with experience over 20,000 feet (6100 meters). Choosing team members with compatible personalities was not a major consideration, and several team members known to be contentious were included.

Although the 1978 expedition would get four members to the summit of K2, the rancor within the group is what many remember and what is the subject of great discussions in A Life on the Edge and Addicted to Danger. There were storms and issues with the route, but problems among the climbers created an atmosphere that poisoned everyone.

"Constantly frustrated by the weather, people's nerves were fraying. Despite my attempts to run a democratic operation that gave everyone an even chance, different levels of skills and motivation were sorting us into two groups. Mediating between the two was difficult, not to mention thankless."

--Jim Whittaker, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, p. 192

One member of the climb thought that the presence of "prima donnas," who believed that the climb would be easy, contributed to the unease. Some members objected to the presence of women, and some objected to favoritism in the choice of a summit team. Several team members would not compromise personal ambition in the slightest, making it impossible to forge a smoothly functioning team.

Jim Whittaker, the leader of the 1978 expedition, suggests that conflict is inevitable when diverse, highly motivated people undertake dangerous adventures. Conflict is probably inevitable when very different and highly motivated people do anything. On mountain or in lab, conflict is inevitable, but the leader must intervene to prevent that conflict from simmering or erupting into full-scale rebellion. Deal with every issue as soon as possible; problems won't go away by themselves.

"I wanted our group spirit to outweigh our individual-achievement ethic--a lot to ask. To get here had required extraordinary perseverance, even aggressiveness. Now that the final payoff was close, how could we be expected to let go of the very qualities that had got us here in the first place?"

--Arlene Blum, Annapurna: A Women's Place, p. 141

The way the leader handles those problems will depend on his or her style, and on the individual dynamic of the team. The 1978 American Women's Himalayan Expedition put the first Americans on Annapurna I at a time when few women were invited on climbing expeditions. Team leader and biochemist Arlene Blum considered personalities carefully when assembling the team, knowing that "finding climbers with the right mental and physical qualifications was extremely important. ... For many climbers the initial glamour of expeditionary climbing soon fades, and the actual experience--altitude, grinding hard work, damp, cold, tedium, bureaucratic hassles, the possibility of illness or injury--can be wearisome, disappointing, even devastating. ... The determination needed to keep melting snow for water and cooking can ultimately be more valuable than the skill needed to climb steep ice." (Blum, p. 14) An aside: There's another lab lesson here--hire for character, not just for technical expertise.

The women were determined to climb the mountain in a spirit of togetherness, and they considered that to be as much of a goal as reaching the summit of Annapurna. Indeed, they climbed with relatively little conflict, albeit with constant, even excessive discussion. This style of intensive introspection and interaction was particular to the dynamic of this group, but it was, apparently, effective. There are as many ways to be a leader and to be a team, their experience and the experiences of other expeditions prove, as there are people. Do what works for you.

Choosing a Project: Risk Versus Surety

The American Mount Everest expedition of 1963 put four Americans on the summit of Everest via the already climbed South Col route, and two others via an unexplored route, the West Ridge. The expedition, led by organizer Norman Dyhrenfurth and climbing leader Willi Unsoeld, was one of the most stunning accomplishments in the history of climbing, not just for the meeting near the summit of two successful teams from opposite sides of the mountain, but for the teamwork that made the whole team much greater than the sum of the participants.

Setting the goals and choosing the right people to accomplish each part of the route was intrinsic to the teams' success. Getting the first Americans on Everest in 1963 via the South Col route would be dangerous and exciting enough and would justify to the world the 3 years' worth of fundraising and organizing. But some team members wanted to swap a "safe" South Col ascent for the additional twist and danger of the West Ridge. A decision to put resources and people in the wrong place could risk the success of the entire expedition.

"The question, as Dave put it one night, was, who would be willing to put his energy into the West Ridge, with failure as a not unlikely outcome, when reaching the summit by the South Col seemed so much more assured?" Tom Hornbein, Everest: The West Ridge, p. 38.

The route strategies evolved with time, as the dynamic and strengths of the team were unveiled through weeks of slowly moving up the mountain. Team leaders were aware of differences in personalities and skills--the climbers' ability to handle altitude, resilience in dealing with the cold and other hazards, motivation to climb in the face of almost certain frostbite and the possibility of death--and this knowledge helped sort the team into very compatible and successful subteams. Only when the capabilities of the team were known could the objective risks be assessed and route decisions made.

Each scientist faces the question of the safe, fundable project versus the exciting foray into a new area. You, the leader, might be able to absorb the failure--but can your postdoc? There are no guarantees. The 1963 Everest expedition was successful, but a sudden storm, a recalcitrant team member, a bad choice of route ... any of these factors might have meant failure, or worse. You can stay on the predicable research path if you choose to, but even that might not work, especially if the field moves on without you, propelled along by someone else's successful gamble. PIs warn that it is unwise to put off trying something new too long. Constantly reassess your goals and capabilities, as well as your team's goals and capabilities, and know how much risk each person can bear.

Independence or Nurturing? Guide or Climber? Colleague or Acolyte?

Until a decade or so ago, the mountains 20,000 feet (6100 meters) or higher were climbed by expeditions peopled with trained mountaineers who functioned as a team. As more and more routes up the difficult mountains have been established, amateur climbers have started looking for someone to guide them up an established route--and proved to pay well for this expertise. Clients often outnumber real climbers, and this has a huge impact on the way teams are made and mountains are climbed.

The main impact of this development has been on the new role of the team leader. On real expeditions teammates depend on each other, whereas on commercial expeditions, clients depend on the guides. This has led to a deep culture gap, with some guides being willing to nurture and pamper, and others expecting clients to be independent and responsible.

This uncertainty about responsibilities is highlighted in the series of books about the 10 May 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, in which five people died alone in a sudden storm on the South Col route. Experienced mountaineer, journalist, and client Jon Krakauer ( Into Thin Air), and professional climber and guide Anatoli Boukreev ( The Climb) disagree on many details of that deadly day. But they agree that the multitude of people high on the mountain and dependent for survival not on themselves, but on a guide, was a recipe for disaster.

"Neil said, 'Anatoli, many of our members are at high altitude for the first time, and they don't understand many of the simple things. They want us to hold their hands through everything.' I replied simply, saying that was an absurd position. I repeated again my concerns that we had to encourage self-reliance." Boukreev, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, p. 85

Unless a client is capable of troubleshooting at high altitude, or is one-on-one with a responsible guide, the person will always be especially vulnerable.

Another factor in the disastrous 10 May on Everest was that whatever the expectations were, they were not made clear. Many commercial expeditions have a defined turnaround time, a time where those who haven't summited must turn around and head back down again, lest nightfall find exhausted members still on the mountain. The leaders of the 10 May commercial expeditions were vague and contradictory about a turnaround time, and many clients and guides were still struggling to reach the Everest summit late in the afternoon, even as clouds began to envelop the mountain.

Most PIs can recognize the difficulty of this decision: How much you help lab members who are not as independent, or as gifted, as others? Do you carefully nurture each person to his or her own capacity? Do you write a paper for the student who can't seem to get it done? Or do you refuse on the principle that since you are training potential PIs, you are doing no favors by expecting less than complete self-sufficiency?

Your choices will depend not only on your own personality, but on your situation: Your degree of mentorship may be different with a small lab than a big lab, or at a small college versus a terrifyingly competitive university. The key is to be clear about your expectations, about your philosophies. This will help you choose a team, and it will help prospective team members choose a guide. As you go, your ideas can--and should--change. Just be sure to let everyone know when they do; don't make your team members guess about what is expected of them.

"It is strange how when a dream is fulfilled there is little left but doubt." Tom Hornbein, Everest: The West Ridge, p. 183

Tenure may seem a high summit, but neither mountain peaks nor tenure assure fulfillment. Many scientists are disappointed that the milestones they reach for--tenure, or membership in the academy, or whatever--do not provide ultimate satisfaction. The last lesson from the mountains might be that it is the effort itself, not the achievement of the summit, that brings satisfaction. There is always another mountain to climb.


A. Blum, Annapurna: A woman's place (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1980)

A. Boukreev and G. W. DeWatt, The climb: Tragic ambitions on Everest (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1997)

A. Davidson, Minus 148°: First winter ascent of Mt. McKinley (The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1990)

M. Herzog, Annapurna (The Lyons Press, New York, 1987)

T. F. Hornbein, Everest: The West Ridge (The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1980)

T. F. Hornbein, Personal communication, 2003

J. Krakauer, Into thin air: A personal account of the Mt. Everest disaster (Villard, New York, 1997)

J. Roskelly, Nandi Devi: The tragic expedition (The Mountaineers, Seattle, 2000)

J. Whittaker, A life on the edge: Memoirs of Everest and beyond (The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1999)

J. Wickwire and D. Bullitt, Addicted to danger: A memoir about affirming life in the face of death (Pocket Books, New York, 1998)

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